The RBS privatisation is set to be Osborne's version of selling off the gold

There needs to be pressure on Osborne to state what success looks like in respect to the £37 billion investment the Government made in two banks, writes VMC Rosario.

A couple of tweets crossed my timeline this morning about a piece from the Guardian last month by former Labour MP Chris Mullin arguing that a readjustment to restore the balance in Gordon Brown reputation. In it he argues that Brown’s handling of the crisis was world leading:

It was the British government's decision, announced on 8 October 2008, to take a controlling interest in three major banks that prompted the Europeans, followed quickly by the Americans, to do likewise. Indeed, the Europeans made no secret of this. A few days after the British had acted Brown was invited to address the 15 eurozone heads of government.

How we view the decisive action Gordon and Alastair took on the banks will be coloured by the decisions the current Chancellor, George Osborne, takes on the publicly-held stakes in Lloyds TSB and RBS either later this month in his Budget statement (or later this year as the Spending Review and possible Winter Statement come into view).

It’s clear that some sort of decision is being put together in haste. Stories in media earlier this month were that Osborne was doing some clarification about how the Government could divest its stock: either if a share price of 73.6p has been reached for a given period of time or the Government has sold at least 33% of its shareholding at prices above 61p.

This week the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, told the Banking Standards Commission that the Government should sell the banks:

The whole idea of a bank being 82 per cent-owned by the taxpayer, run at arms’ length from the Government, is a nonsense.

It cannot make any sense. I think it would be much better to accept that it should have been a temporary period of ownership only, to restructure the bank and put it back.

That has certainly piled pressure on Osborne to act. Now it seems Treasury ministers are planning to stage a "Tell Sid"-style cut price sell-off of shares to the public. That Policy Exchange are going to pronounce on the idea in a couple of weeks time gives it credence but it could potentially give Osborne a distracting announcement for an otherwise depressingly meagre Budget statement.

Osborne has form on doing something seemingly clever but ultimately foolish. Still, if he does go with a public sell-off he can take comfort in the cover the Liberal Democrat-leaning think tank Centre Forum will have given him in floating something similar but crucially different last year. Tim Montogomerie was picking up something similar even earlier.

Eye-catching ideas to one side there needs to be pressure on Osborne to state what success looks like in respect to the £37 billion investment the Government made in these two banks.

With banks "stabbing businesses in the back" in respect to lending, the banking reform bill still in draft and the banking standards commission still considering a wide range of issues relating the banks, playing politics with £37 billion looks like an awfully big risk.

This is especially true given just how Osborne has made considerable mileage out of bashing Gordon Brown for costing the taxpayer "£9 billion by selling the gold cheap".  If the now-Chancellor was keen for the taxpayer to pay attention to the bottom line then he should expect just as much scrutiny this time around.

Secondly, a public sell off which puts money in the hands of ordinary people is potentially something Labour should applaud, if a fair investment can actually be shown to reach ordinary people. Frankly if the chief executive of Lloyds TSB is going to make £1.4m out of any share sell-off, then it has got to be worth more that a token gesture for "Sid".  That’s especially important when saving the banks has overall cost every man, woman and child £20,000.

Labour should be holding Clegg and Cable to the principle that any effort should "socialise the profit" and ensure that the Government (in serious need finance-wise) does not sell the family silver off cheap.

If after investing £37bn to save banks there is nothing but a continuing litany of appalling behaviour when it comes to bonuses, Libor, bank charges, and lending—not to mention the lack of visible reform— then George and David will need to be clear about what they’ve achieved in finishing what Gordon and Alistair needed to start. 

Photograph: Getty Images.

V M C Rozario is a pseudonymous former housing professional and a member of Generation Rent.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide